HERE COME the Droids! Scores of them, deadly in combat, of every rank and class ? medic droids, logic droids, security droids, command droids, repair droids. From the lowly menials to the deadly battle cyborg, they inhabit Quazatron ? underground technopolis of Quartech.
Then there's you, KLP-2, the most famous bot in the galaxy. Accidentally, while training as a droid mechanic, you dismantled your teacher. After that things went from bad to worse. A highly developed ability to take things to pieces led you to a posting at the end of Empire, where you redeemed yourself by dismantling the left leg of Mandroid, the space pirate. Now you're a public hero.
And now, because of your fame, you've been sent to Quartech to dismantle, destroy, or otherwise demoralise the alien droids of Quazatron.
This latest game from the gifted mind of Steve Turner, programmer of Dragontorc and Avalon, is a magnificent blend of arcade action and strategy. It owes much to Andrew Braeburn's Commodore 64 game Paradroid, also published by Hewson, but for my money Quazatron has a wonderful quirkiness that lifts it well above the earlier game.
The city is built on seven levels connected asymmetrically by lift shafts. Each level has a completely different layout of ramps and shafts. The impression is a little like a Marble Madness scene, but the similarity ends there.
You can climb up and down ramps and, of course, move along the level, but you cannot climb up a straight edge. Falling off an edge drains your energy, and some of the great cliffs that split a few of the levels into two halves represent instant suicide if you take the plunge. The alien bots may well try to push you over - especially if they are more powerful than you.
You can shoot down droids and, if you are superior in strength, destroy them by ramming. But even if you're the greatest zapper that ever held a joystick, you would still run out of power long before you finished the game. To get more power you might try to juice up from the power points scattered around each level. Better by far to rely more on your famed ability at taking the opposition to bits - literally. Here's how.
When you move you can either be in mobile mode or grapple mode. In the former you can fire your rockets at the enemy. In the latter you can close for a form of robotic wrestling that scores full marks for novelty and addictive pleasure.
When you make contact in grapple mode, the screen switches to display a diagram of the two droids' security circuits. Well, that's what the instructions say they are.
A series of lines, one side blue and the other yellow, meet in the centre of the screen where a barrier separates them. The barrier is coloured alternately yellow and blue where the lines strike.
Each side has a number of pulses to send down the lines and a time limit in which to despatch them. Some of the lines are dead ends, others split into two, some converge on a single part of the barrier. You get a short time to decide which side of the circuit to play and then try to turn as much of the barrier your colour as you can. The opposing droids play more or less efficiently depending on their power.
Once you win a victory - by converting more than half of the barrier to your colour - you can take your pick from the various components of the enemy droids. The closer the battle the more likely some of these are to be damaged.
An overwhelming victory will give you a free choice - but beware, a powerful drive unit may require more power to fuel it than you can afford. Sophisticated weapons and shields may put too much of a strain on your drive unit, and so on.
Details of the characteristics of various units are available through the monitor terminals dotted about the levels. However, you will receive information on the parts carried by droids of similar or lower rank to your own current configuration. To improve you must take on a more powerful droid - blind.
The droids are graded from one to nine - one being the most powerful. However, you must still be careful over what equipment you pick, as even the most mighty droids may not be superior to you in every part. And if you overload yourself with heavy, fuel-hungry gear you'll be risking everything when power runs low.
The graphics, even on the pre-production version I have been playing, are superb. The playing area of each level is large, and although the scrolling was not as smooth as I would have liked, Hewson assures me that problem will be solved in the finished version.
The game plays fast - again, that is to be slowed down a fraction, although I don't see any particular need for it. Keeping the balance between grappling and shooting enemy droids is a nice exercise in strategy, and the whole idea of cannibalising the enemy for spare parts appeals equally to my sense of humour and love of variety in games.
Another feature I enjoy is an almost complete lack of status tables, energy and so on. Your power level is indicated by the rate at which your droid's head revolves. When it gets really low, KLP-2's face assumes a gloomy expression, and at rock-bottom the movement mode indicator flashes a warning.
Apart from that, the only indication of your status is when the lighting on a level goes dark because you have killed all the droids, and when you win a grapple contest ? you are reminded then of the components currently installed on your droid.
That vagueness about how well you are doing until you start doing really badly makes the game a major challenge. In fact, it's quite easy to run around having fun, killing droids and ripping off their usable parts. But you must plan carefully if you want to survive for long, husbanding your power supply until you can be sure of obtaining better.
Different levels have higher concentrations of powerful bots too. If you knock out too many of the really powerful ones in one visit, you may find you have wiped out and wasted a major source of good equipment and cannot clean up the rest of the city in time. The potential for complex planning is great.
Compared to Steve Turner's previous games, Quazatron seems much more light-hearted in concept. But it's certainly not a quick throw-away between major games. I found it one of the most refreshing games I've seen in months, and I'm sure I'll be returning to it many times.
In spite of the fact that the copy I've been using still has a few rough edges to it, I'm in no doubt at all about awarding Quazatron a Classic. It's a magnificent program as it is, and the slight improvements promised can only make it better. Quazatron had me hooked from the start.
Programmer: Steve Turner
Joystick: Kempston, Sinclair, Cursor
KLP-2 moves towards a power point - the dark square with a circle and cross.
Two powerful security droids have KLP-2 trapped at the top - dare you make the switchback run down the right-hand side?
KLP-2 is about to enter a lift. Above looms a higher part of the level, only accessible from another shaft.
A full plan of the current level can be obtained from the information terminals.
A plan of the levels and lift shafts. The current level is illuminated.